Commentary: How plastics reshaped the planet

Commentary: How plastics reshaped the planet

The effort to boost plastic recycling is necessary to retain the material’s considerable value to the world.

September 16, 2022

When it comes to plastics, the world doesn't have a moment to waste. Plastics are everywhere and poised to dominate the 21st century as one of the yet-unchecked drivers of climate change.

Chemical engineers spent much of the 1960s devising cheap ways to splice different hydrocarbon molecules from petroleum into strands that could be molded into anything from beverage bottles to Barbie dolls. My company, Greenback Recycling Technology, uses thermochemical reactions to break plastics down into new products such as virgin plastic, monomers, fuel, energy and other commodities.

Until recently, plastics enjoyed relative anonymity in ubiquity: we were so thoroughly surrounded that we hardly noticed it.

Unfortunately, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of discarded plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9 per cent is estimated to have been recycled; another 12 per cent may have been incinerated. Too much of the rest has gone into landfills or, worse, into the natural environment.

Humankind has produced unfathomable quantities of plastic for decades. Until we decided, suddenly, it’s a terrible thing. To travel back even to 2015 is to enter a world where almost all the things we currently know about plastic are already known, but people aren’t very angry about it. Some people identified it as a problem, but very little was done about it.

While many argue there is too much plastic, and it either takes too long to decompose or does not decompose, others suggest it is less harmful to the environment than many alternative forms of packaging. Some even go as far as claiming plastic is not that harmful to the environment – and anyone who rejects plastic without thinking and opts for alternatives will often cause even more severe damage to the environment.

Plastics can be extremely lightweight and robust. Consequently, less energy is used during the transportation of packaged products. In addition, less energy and water are required to manufacture plastic packaging.

What recommendation can you give to people who want to make the world a little bit better in daily life? A straightforward one: regulate your use of plastic.

Try not to touch anything made of plastic for a whole day. There’s a good chance you slept on a mattress with plastic in it last night; were woken up by an alarm clock on your smartphone (made of plastic); showered – surrounded by plastic; brushed your teeth with a plastic toothbrush; grabbed a coffee in a plastic cup; and walked to work in your plastic-coated waterproof raincoat. A plastic-free life is virtually impossible.

Imagining how our lives would change if we suddenly lost access to plastic can help us figure out how to forge a new, more sustainable relationship with it.

Framing the problem

Correcting our plastic waste problem requires a fundamental change in how plastics are made, used and discarded.

While plastics are ubiquitous, reducing plastic pollution requires actions from all stakeholders to encourage more sustainable use of plastics. Like so many other aspects of our relationship with plastics, this failure is often framed in terms of individual shortcomings: plastics producers, or the geopolitics that have made plastics so widespread, are rarely called out.

People’s decisions and actions are causing plastic pollution. Understanding perceptions and behavior holds the key to reducing plastic pollution.

If we are going to improve the quality of our environment, it is essential to get everybody involved. We must support communities with the latest tools, knowledge, and evidence to change behaviors and tackle plastic pollution locally.

We must ensure everybody re-evaluates the things they buy and consume - to step away from single-use items and choose more reusable, repairable and sustainable alternatives. Small steps will contribute to creating cleaner communities and marine environments.

The way we talk about and frame problems in the media matters too. For years, there has been a practice of drawing attention to the scale of the problem to raise awareness and concern in the hope this will change people’s behavior. But the behavioral sciences are littered with lingering questions and examples that this approach can do more harm than good by normalizing undesirable behaviors.

Progress is possible

Open-mindedness involves being receptive to a wide variety of ideas, arguments, and information. It is necessary to think critically and rationally.

Advanced recycling is a sustainably oriented process that harnesses the power of science and technology to transform used plastics into new products that can be recycled again and again.

Here at Greenback Technologies, we contribute to a sustainable future by solving the environmental impacts of plastic packaging and turn waste into profit. This innovative solution will help create a more circular economy for plastics and a cleaner environment for future generations by turning today's hard-to-recycle plastics into reusable resources.

Our advanced recycling capabilities put us at the heart of the plastics value chain. We’re close to the manufacturers making plastic products that consumers use daily. We can identify potential partners in business and government, strengthen new and existing relationships, and work together to develop solutions to the complex problems we all face. And we believe the scalability of advanced recycling makes it one of the most exciting solutions.

The goal of advanced recycling is to help society recycle a more significant share of the products we use daily – instead of throwing them away. By making advanced recycling a scalable solution that can be replicated globally, we can increase the amount of plastic material that can be made into new products and reduce overall plastic waste.

As a plastic recycling and certification company, we created the eco2Veritas Circularity Platform, an agnostic system that can be implemented across any recycling process, including chemical recycling, to create a circular economy. The platform enables the consumer-packaged goods sector to be supplied with quality certified post-consumer recyclate. The recyclate is tracked from the landfill, through a pyrolysis processing plant, to where it ends up as quality feedstock for new plastic products. The auditing of the recyclate is digital, carried out in real-time and stored on a private, secure blockchain.

We have also partnered with Enval, another United Kingdom-based company. That firm has created a state-of-the-art microwave pyrolysis plant that converts flexible plastic into a valuable commodity, namely Py-oil, which is converted into naphtha – a non-fossil feedstock. Naphtha can be used to create plastic feedstock that is suitable for manufacturing plastic packaging for consumer packaged goods companies and, more critically, for food applications.

We also provide the provenance of the recyclate, certifying it so all claims to its origin can be substantiated. Other vital traits are that Enval plants can be installed at landfill sites where the waste is distributed and agile enough to scale and generate their own power.

As the need for certified recycled post-consumer material increases and becomes a valuable commodity, our innovative approach to generating recyclate for the consumer packaged goods industry offers a meaningful solution to creating new plastic products while limiting environmental harm.

For decades, the industry has created the illusion that its problems are well under control, all while intensifying production and promotion. At the same time, we cannot live in a world that is anti-plastic. It’s much more complicated than that.

We all need to avoid difficult-to-recycle plastics, even lament their widespread geographical use, but also accept that plastics can have a useful purpose and trust that advanced recycling can help negate its complex toxicity and alter the course of its legacy.

(More information on Greenback Recycling Technologies can be found on this web page.)